Anagogical vision and comedic form in Flannery O'Connor: the reasonable use of the unreasonable.
I would like to complement the discussion of O'Connor's "comic vision" by looking at the forms she employs in its service. (2) To situate O'Connor in the comedic tradition we need to examine the formal aspects of her art: paradigmatic pairing of alazon and eiron, comic deflation and resolution through plot structure, timing, unmasking devices, characterization, and language. O'Connor uses classic comedic elements (traditionally the enemies of sentiment and egocentricity), and she "customizes" them for her anagogical purposes by truncating the conventional comic plot resolution, and shifting modes at the ends of her works. Her story "Greenleaf" serves to illustrate the anagogical and formal aspects of O'Connor's comedic style.
O'CONNOR gives unrivaled priority in her essays to the function of "seeing. She advocates anything that will activate the writer's obligation to "stare" at things, a species of "stupidity" she says the fiction writer cannot do without (Mystery and Manners 77, 84, 91, 177; The Habit of Being 115). This stupidity, of course, is her term for the gradual and complex process of sacramental beholding that she calls the prophetic vision, or "getting the point" (Mysteo, and Manners 77). When stared at thus relentlessly, the concrete thing yields its "point," that is, its extensions of meaning. The prophetic writer sees the extensions of near (or visible) things, and sees "far" (or invisible) things close up. The extensions of the near lead to the "invisible" sphere of the divine (mystery). Conversely, the distance between the "far" things of the spirit and the visible world diminishes. This is what O'Connor calls the anagogical dimension of her art, akin to what Paul Ricoeur might call an "excess of signification" (55).
In the service of this anagogical function, O'Connor looks to make the concrete image do "double time," (Mystery and Manners 96), to "suggest both the world and eternity" (Mystery and Manners 111). In her comic grotesque, she seeks a single "image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye ... but just as real" (Mystery and Manners 42). The anagogical vision sees "different levels of reality in one image or one situation" (Mystery and Manners 72). Neither a dogmatist nor a moralist, O'Connor was in the business of seeing and trying to make others see what is there but is invisible to the secular eye. How is it then, with this serious artistic agenda, that O'Connor chose comedy as her vehicle?
First of all, it is necessary to dispel the idea that there is an inherent conflict between seriousness and comedy, or between a vision of the sacred and an affinity for the incongruous. A host of writers from Kierkegaard through Reinhold Niebuhr have found in comedy's focus on the concrete, its movement from constraint to freedom, and its anamnesis--its recall of our fully embodied humanity (Lynch 98)--to be vitally attuned to the Christian perspective. Kierkegaard makes the claim that "the more thoroughly and substantially a human being exists, the more he will discover the comical ... [T]he religious man, most of all [must] discover the comical" (qtd. in Hyers 10-11). The unifying theme of these writers is that comedy embraces the finiteness and incongruity of human existence, an essential perspective for a religion based on Incarnation. Insofar as it is a recognition of the incongruity of human existence, Reinhold Niebuhr claims that comedy is more profound than any philosophy which "seeks to devour incongruity in reason" (qtd. in Hyers 148). Conrad Hyers's claim that comedy is "closer to the deep springs of religion than tragedy" (233), is taken up by Nathan A. Scott, Jr.:
... it is the function of comedy to enliven our sense of the human actuality, to put us in touch with the Whole Truth--particularly when, in the pursuit of some false and abstract image of ourselves, we have become embarrassed by the limitations of our creatureliness and undertaken ... flight into the realm of pure idea.... [T]he comic imagination, it seems to me, summarizes an important part of the Christian testimony about the meaning of life. (Hyers 73)
One writer who had a notable influence on Flannery O'Connor's aesthetic theory was William Lynch, the Jesuit scholar whose essays on the Christian imagination and on comedy she had read approvingly in Christ and Apollo. He argues the supreme appropriateness of comedy for an incarnational and sacramental view of reality because of its fidelity to the finite "concrete," a word O'Connor herself used like a mantra in her essays. He argues that the shock of seeing the radical congruity between the comic figure and the divine, between the earth and Christ "with all the logic omitted (109)" is the distinctive province of comedy. Lynch concludes that comedy is the right vehicle for an incarnational vision:
The "mud in man" is nothing to be ashamed of. It can produce ... the face of God.... To recall this, to recall this incredible relation between mud and God, is, in its own distant, adumbrating way, the function of comedy. (109)
Clearly there is a strong tradition connecting comedy to the sacred in Christian thought that ratifies the delight O'Connor took in developing her eloquent incongruities. Comedy was second nature to O'Connor. Like the child in "The Temple of the Holy Ghost," O'Connor figuratively rolled on the floor in laughter at the incongruities so remorselessly present to her in daily life. "The basis of the way I see," she wrote to John Hawkes, "is comic regardless of what I do with it ..." (The Habit of Being 400). What she does with the comic, I would argue, is to make it the medium of the anagogical.
THE journey toward God, O'Connor claimed, is often impeded by emotion, particularly when it leads one to skip the process of redemption "in its concrete reality" in order to arrive at a "mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite" (Mystery and Manners 148). "A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity," O'Connor says, "is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path" (Mystery and Manners 84). Her animus against emotion amounted to a virtual campaign against sentimentality and sappy compassion. She was dogged by readers who wanted to feel compassion for her cripples and idiots while she wanted "intellectual and moral judgments ... [to] have ascendancy over feeling" (Mystery and Manners 43). She levels her aim at pious readers and writers, people "afflicted with sensibility" (Mystery and Manners 84), who produce and reward "soggy, formless" literature (Mystery and Manners 31). In "The Church and the Fiction Writer" she goes so far as to link sentimentality in art with obscenity and pornography (Mystery and Manners 147-48), both guilty of the Manichean tendency to separate nature and grace. She skewers romanticism, as did Mark Twain, by deflating falsified language and pious cliches at every turn. Like Moliere and Ben Jonson before her, O'Connor cannot resist unmasking the mock state of virtue. It is easy to see why she was so fond of the comedic mode. Comedy detests nothing more than the character that forgets his humanity (Lynch 29) in all its incongruousness.
In opposition to the romanticism and sentimentality responsible for "pious [literary] trash," comedy is the quintessentially rational form. It activates the intellect while numbing the emotions. Horace Walpole gave us the memorable dictum that life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. In the same vein, Henri Bergson makes his classic claim that comedy is incompatible with emotion, that it is an appeal to intelligence, pure and simple. Comedy demands of the audience a "momentary anaesthesia of the heart" (64). O'Connor's tribe of morons, backwoods prophets, razor-tongued children, ironhanded widows, and ugly-spirited intellectuals, then, is depicted in a manner that does not elicit our sympathy or compassion. It calks for judgment. Their deformities are ludicrous, a species of the "ugly" that Aristotle sees as the proper sphere of comedy.
When O'Connor claims that her art is "a reasonable use of the unreasonable" (Mystery and Manners 109), she uses the term "reason" in a specifically Thomistic sense, if art is, as St. Thomas says, "reason in the making" (Mystery and Manners 82), O'Connor marshals her irrational materials in such a way that an underlying logos emerges. "The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself" (Mystery and Manners 82). She points us not to a rhetorical formulation but to the form of the work itself, a form that makes manifest the all-surrounding order of existence. If comedy, through its ordering of the unreasonable, allows the underlying reason to emerge, it becomes a fitting vehicle for the anagogical vision.
NORTHROP Frye locates the genre of comedy in the "mythos of spring." Comedy celebrates fertility by reenacting the death of the old order, typically characterized by irrational law and excessive constraints, and the rebirth of a society free to follow the impulses of love and harmony. As Aristotle tells us in the Poetics, comedy originated in the fertility processions in honor of Dionysus, and many modern theorists still see "eros" as the motivating force of the genre. Mikhail Bakhtin identifies the prototypical comic movement as one of liberation (Averintsev 80) from whatever obstacles impede the life force. In "new comedy" or romantic comedy, the impediment to true love or to change may be blocking characters (such as tyrannical fathers), oppressive laws, or mistaken identities. The resolution of the conflict brings about the required reversals and transformation of society. In Aristophanic, or satiric comedy, the tradition O'Connor appropriates, intruders or imposters threaten to destroy an already vulnerable society. The action requires that the characters be unmasked (deflated) and either absorbed into or expelled from a society that is ultimately saved from destruction, but does not necessarily undergo a transformation.
The action of comedy, varied as individual instances may be, does have a discernible structure. It moves toward freedom, typically liberation from blocking characters and social obstacles. Its characteristic elements include 1) the unmasking of false characters, 2) the cognitio, or recognition scene, 3) reversal, and 4) restoration of harmony. If the central movement of the plot is toward freedom, the central movement of the character is from pistis to gnosis, from opinion/illusion to knowledge/reality. Comic action typically concludes with restored harmony (usually united lovers) and a glimpse of an ideal society. In its satiric forms, comedy accomplishes its end by revealing the deformity of the existing social order and by overturning it, becoming in the process a potentially subversive genre.
The comic plot is typically quite complicated, often involving a disproportionate effort for an inconsequential result. Episodic and irrational on the surface, the comic plot turns on its own brand of inevitability. Blocking characters are outwitted by their own cleverness, led by their own vices into traps, or caught out by characters they had dismissed as marginal and powerless. Traps snap shut with a kind of ironic precision that suggests an underlying order and justice. Obvious juxtaposition of opposing scenes, coupled with clockwork timing give an impression of the victory of plot over character.
Comic characters are stereotypical (the senex, the crafty servant, the domineering parent, and the like) drawn in caricature or cartoon-like exaggeration. Comic characters are "worse" than the average, according to Aristotle. They are "ridiculous," that is, a species of "the ugly," and their language is low-class. Two conventional structures of the genre include doubling of characters (eg. twins, identical disguises, mirror images), and pairing characters with their opposites or foils (tall and short, smart and dumb, Quixote and Sancho Panza). These patterns build complexity and create balance, respectively. A combination of passages from the Tractatus Coislinius and the Nicomachean Ethics reveals that Aristotle named the oppositional comic characters by their defining tropisms: the alazons, or imposters; the eirons, or self-deprecators; the bomolochoi (buffoons), the characters with too much wit; and the agroikos (boors), those with too little (Rath 252).
As Sura Rath points out, the "contest of the eiron and alazon forms the basis of comic action" (252). The alazon inflates his self-image and is typically in a position of power or privilege when the comic action begins. The eiron, by contrast, appears to be less than he is. Often the eiron is a subtle, ironic dialectician like Plato's Socrates (Foulke 600) who may withdraw temporarily from the action, only to surface at a critical moment in the plot and deflate the alazon (Rath 256), thereby bringing about the comic reversal. In contrast to the overstatement of the alazon, the eiron's most powerful weapon is Meisosis, or understatement (Bedford 177).
If Aristotle provides a generic structure of comic polarities, Henri Bergson provides the classic exposition of comic modality. His formulation of the comic as "the mechanical entrusted on the living" (92) defines the elements of comedic plotting and characterization. Humans are laughable, he says, "in exact proportion as they remind us of machines" (79). The comedic character is repetitive, robotic, fixated, and predictable. The language of the comic character: 1) contains "ready-made formulas and stereotypical phrases uttered automatically" (133) and 2) it takes the material element of a metaphor literally (135)--two favorite O'Connor devices. (3)
If the mythos of spring is the key to the comic action, Bergson shows how that concept is dramatized in the comedy itself. The elan vital, what I will call the life force, is what gives flexibility, adaptability, and grace to the human. Whatever constrains the elan vital, therefore, distorts the human comically. This is manifested in the character's rigidity of person. thought, and action. From this perspective, "a flexible vice may not be as easy to ridicule as a rigid virtue" (Bergson 137). The comic character is not only rigid but predictable, and this is the key to comic plotting. Predictability builds anticipation and provides the gears for the comic plot. And for all this, the comic character is utterly lacking in self-knowledge. "A comic character," says Bergson, "is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. The comic person is unconscious" (71). The comedic plot thus moves the character toward an encounter with the self, or as William Lynch would put it, with one's indestructible "rock-bottom being" (100), usually at the expense of the character's ego.
It is worth noting how closely Flannery O'Connor's Christian anthropology dovetails with the comic polarities of alazon and eiron. It is "usually some form of self-inflation," she says, that impedes spiritual growth. "This may be the pride of the reformer or the theorist, or it may only be that simple-minded self-appreciation which uses its own sincerity as a standard of truth" (Mystery and Manners 82). By contrast, self-knowledge brings humility because "to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks" (Mystery and Manners 35). Not only is it comic justice for the eiron to deflate the alazon, therefore, but for O'Connor it is a necessary part of the action of grace. As Fr. Finn of Purgatory warns the pseudo-intellectual alazon in "The Enduring Chill," "the Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are" (345). And how, in fact, are her characters? Lacking in grace--both figuratively and literally.
O'CONNOR'S graceless characters are both quintessentially comic and perfectly anagogical. A good Thomist, O'Connor defines evil as the absence of grace. It makes sense, then, that her characters are distorted to the degree that they lack grace, her anagogical equivalent of Bergson's elan vital. If grace is, as she says, what gives life to the soul (Mystery and Manners 204), her rigid "grotesques" serve to define that grace precisely by showing the effects of its absence. According to Bergson, comic portraiture captures "a tendency (bias, fixation) imperceptible to others and renders it visible to all eyes" (77). One way of doing this is to "call attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned." This technique of characterization, which O'Connor employed relentlessly, is what she calls "distortion." It saved O'Connor from an artistic fate she feared worse than death--having to depict grace by means of piety and virtue. (4)
O'Connor's 1956 story "Greenleaf" illustrates how these comedic structures play out in her fiction. The mythos of spring dominates the story, and not only because the protagonist, Mrs. May (representing the old order) exclaims "spring is here" just before being killed (ritually?) in the center of a green meadow. The carnivalesque scene that opens the story establishes the mythos. An outlaw bull, adorned by a wreath of foliage (recalling the sacrificial carnival ox of the Middle Ages with ribbon-bedecked horns, described by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World [202-203]), appears in the night and invades the dreams of Mrs. May. The bull is fecundity personified. His unbridled freedom of movement and flouting of all artificial constraints threaten both the (mechanized) "breeding schedule" (emphasis added) of Mrs. May's herd and the vulnerable order of her universe.
The story moves from illusion to reality, underscored by the materialized metaphor of "seeing the light" that concludes it: "she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable" (306). The plot yields a glimpse of the new order in the harmonious modern farm of the thriving Greenleaf boys. The archetypal freedom from obstructing constraint is symbolically achieved by the death of the widow and the consequent lifting of her "iron hand." But it is her freedom, not that of society that is at issue.
"Greenleaf" is patterned on archetypal inflation and deflation, a rhythm that builds momentum as the willful protagonist is stunned by degrees, until being deflated verbally by the eiron, and then physically by the bull, the intractable life force she has tried to destroy. The first two paragraphs establish the pattern of inflation and deflation. The bull is endowed by its creator/narrator with a romantic, deific aura: "the bull, silvered in the moonlight ... like some patient god come to woo her" (286). This aura is deflated unceremoniously by Mrs. May's debasing label: "Some nigger's scrub bull" (286). Two adorned heads, the bull's and Mrs. May's--the latter's sprouting green curlers over a face masked in egg white paste--confront each other in the moonlight preparing for the comic agon.
The comic action is appropriately trifling--the effort to catch and dispatch an intrusive bull--and the plot prototypically forces a disproportionate expenditure of energy on Mrs. May's part. Her relentless imaginary dialogues with Mr. Greenleaf, coupled with her physical chasing after Greenleaf and his sons, her responding like a jack-in-the-box to the barbs from her own sons, and her efforts to uphold an illusory order, exhaust her by the final scene, and accomplish nothing. She is face to lace with the bull once more.
The central agon is between the widow and her detested hired hands, the Greenleaf family, to whose twin sons the bull belongs. Comic polarities abound. Mrs. May, thin, brittle, industrious, rigid, and unbelieving, is countered by Mrs. Greenleaf, "large and loose," obscenely sprawled in the dirt shouting "Jesus, stab me in the heart" (291). Mrs. May's sons are mechanized opposites: they "never had the same reaction to anything." They are opposed to the two Greenleaf boys who are like "one man in two skins" (299)--a bit of comedic doubling that helps to intensify the ironies. The Greenleaf boys marry well, get themselves educated, and run a model farm. Mrs. May's sons are the obligatory comedic stereotypes, "a business type" and an "intellectual," united only in their life-denying habits. The Greenleafs, like their bull, are offensively fertile. The Greenleaf boys produce three children apiece, while Mrs. May's sons remain sterile emotionally and physically. This contrast underscores the archetypal comedic mythos of life force versus the constraining forces of the old order. The surface action is farcical--Mrs. May as blocking character tries to impose rigid control over the Greenleaf bull--but the farce is a mimesis of the underlying movement: Mrs. May's effort to block the forces of change that will allow the Greenleaf trash to become "society" (292), and herself to accept grace.
Mrs. May is a good Bergsonian machine. She is near-sighted, she rules her world with an "iron hand," her back is as "stiff as a rake handle," her voice is "brittle," and her "screech" is "habitual." Similarly, her rigid social categories ("trash," "nice," shiftless") all familiar distinctions in the O'Connor universe, lead her to try to impose her will on the intractable worlds, material and human, around her. Her arbitrarily timed movements reveal her affinity with the mechanical as opposed to the spontaneous, even in the heat of vengeance: "she waited until exactly eleven o'clock" (302); "she decided to wait exactly ten minutes by her watch" (304). Her fixed ideas make her reactions thoroughly predictable, and easily manipulated by her sons: "what did you start her off for?" (300). The plot mechanism, in fact, turns on her very predictability, her reacting on cue to each carefully planted stimulus.
One example serves to illustrate this comic mechanism. We know that one of Mrs. May's chief mortifications in life is that her son Schofield is a "policy man"; he sells insurance to Negroes instead of selling "nice" insurance. It is a constant source of agony for her and therefore a source of mirth for him. Her fixation about propriety sets the comedic trap. When Mrs. May visits the Greenleaf farm, she tries to assert her illusion of social superiority by pulling rank on the Negro boy who works for the Greenleaf twins. After her rude and transparent belittling of him, to which he seems impervious, he "looked at her suddenly with a gleam of recognition. 'Is you my policy man's mother?' he asked" (298). The question is the perfect deflator because it derives its effect from Mrs. May's own fixation. The scene is deliciously deflating, but the recognition that takes place is the child's and the reader's, not the protagonist's. It takes more than that to bring about Mrs. May's cognitio--if indeed it ever occurs.
Mrs. May is not only the senex, the opposer of the new order; she is also the alazon, inflating her fantasies of control, victimization, and moral superiority. She announces that she will not die until she is "good and ready" (295) and she even schemes to extend her "will" beyond the grave. Mrs. May labors under the illusion that she "handles" Mr. Greenleaf by keeping her "foot on his neck" (294), and that she can discern the moral deficiencies of others.
In a fantasized last judgment scene, Mrs. May finds herself, unlike the Greenleafs, to be worthy: "I've worked and not wallowed" (305). Her hopes for salvation are based on her own hard work. O'Connor takes an artistic risk by countering Mrs. May's egocentricity with Mr. Greenleaf's "I thank Gawd for ever-thang" (298) drawled in "Greenleaf English" to take the hex of piety off it. His grammar is worse, but his theology is better than Mrs. May's. Most egregiously of all, Mrs. May believes she speaks for God when she tells the wallowing prayer-healer, Mrs. Greenleaf, that "Jesus would be ashamed" of her and that he'd be happier if she would go home and wash her children's clothes (291). She recoils fastidiously from the filth and religious excess of Mrs. Greenleaf's ritual, literally refusing to accept the "mud in man" that William Lynch reminds us can produce the face of God.
In Flannery O'Connor's Religious' Imagination, George Kilcourse cites "egocentric autonomy," a term he borrows from the theologian Roger Haight, as the besetting O'Connor sin (243). It is manifested in Mrs. May when she looks out her windows and sees only herself reflected: "When she looked out any window in her house, she saw the reflection of her own character" (295). Mrs. May has, in fact, taken the place of God in her own myopic universe. Until she encounters her own "rock-bottom being," she will never encounter God. Clearly this is an olazon awaiting both comic and anagogical comuppence.
In a sense, Mrs. May is right when she laments that everything is against her. Each contact she has with reality can bring down her house of cards. To that extent, every character is an assistant eiron. But Mr. Greenleaf functions as the quintessential elm, in the work. In contrast to Mrs. May's energetic and frantic pace, he moves in slow motion and obliquely, as if on the perimeter of an invisible circle. With his "dark crafty face," his "fox colored eyes" and his habitual understatement, he is a shrewd match for his employer. Meiosis is his mode of speech. In answering the ad for his job, he writes merely "have two sons." but he appears on the scene with wile and five daughters as well. When Mrs. May asks him who owns the bull, his evasive answer, "it must be somebody's bull" (288), is taken by her as a sign of his idiocy. In fact it is a brilliant countermove. His seeming deficiency is the cover under which he positions himself to deflate the alazon.
Mr. Greenleaf's signature action is procrastination, a kind of evasive passive resistance that thwarts the force of Mrs. May's will. He seems startlingly out of character, therefore, when like clockwork he appears at her door precisely at the moment that her sons have broken into a violent brawl. As Mrs. May "stiffens" to conceal this reality from the eiron at her door, her dialogue bulges with inflation: she is the wounded victim of ingratitude, unfairly treated because she is a lone woman. This blatant imposture triggers the eiron to throw off his disguise and puncture her pretense: "Quick as a snake striking, Mr. Greenleaf said, 'You got two boys'" (302). This deflation threatens her at her core. From this point, it is a straight path to the concluding scene.
It is Mr. Greenleaf who exposes the mechanism of the final comedic trap. He tells Mrs. May (and thereby alerts the reader) that the bull (an enemy of the mechanical) "don't like cars and trucks" (296). Mrs. May, relentless in her determination to bend Mr. Greenleaf to her will and make him shoot the bull, predictably starts the engine of her car and drives to the center of the field. O'Connor here creates a comic suspense rivaling Chaucer's in "The Miller's Tale." Mrs. May honks the horn and then sits down on the bumper of the car to wait, thereby maddening and summoning the bull, a deliciously predictable result. It is her own will to power, of course, that springs the comic trap. But her resulting death comes as a shock to the reader, nonetheless.
Mrs. May's journey toward her final encounter with the Greenleaf bull, a seemingly definitive but ultimately ambiguous cognitio scene, leads naturally to the question of how O'Connor typically treats the comedic plot drive toward freedom and recognition. Frye argues that the conventional comedic plot moves toward freedom--an individual's freedom from the bonds of a restrictive society, or a society's freedom from bonds imposed on it by "humorous" characters (that is, people in some kind of "mental bondage" like the humours of Ben Jonson). The freedom toward which O'Connor's plots move, however, needs some clarification. Her protagonists are "humours" as Frye describes the type:
helplessly driven by ruling passions, neurotic compulsions, social rituals, and selfishness.... [They are] people who do not fully know what they are doing, who are slaves to a predictable self-imposed pattern of behavior. What we call the moral norm is, then, not morality but deliverance from moral bondage. ("Argument" 237, emphasis added)
It is easy to trace society's deliverance from moral bondage in Volpone or Tartuffe; and it is easy to trace the deliverance of the individual from society's moral bondage in, for instance, A School For Scandal. But while O'Connor's humours characters and morally depleted societies are recognizably part of the comedic tradition, O'Connor's movement toward freedom is not. She exposes societies for their deformities, but she does not "free" them at the conclusion of the story. O'Connor subjects her characters to shocking confrontations with reality, but her plots often lead them only to the threshold of freedom.
Ruby Turpin's vision of the motley hallelujah procession at the end of "Revelation" and the silent communion of the grandfather and grandson at the end of "The Artificial Nigger" are relatively rare instances of comedic resolution in O'Connor's plots. The concluding scene in "Revelation" depicts a transformed society and an un-illusioned individual, both freed from familiar forms of moral bondage. In some extreme cases, such as those of the doomed characters Thomas ("The Comforts of Home"), or Mr. Fortune ("A View of the Woods"), O'Connor does employ comedic devices to serve satiric/ironic ends, but she omits the comedic deliverance to freedom. More commonly, however, the locus of freedom in O'Connor's fiction is in the deliverance of neither society nor the individual character. Rather, it lies in the formal pattern itself that exposes the tawdriness of cliched virtue, the demonic aspect of conventional mores, the perversion of grace in "respectable" people, and the seductive rationalizations of "intellectuals."
If, as O'Connor claims, the kind of freedom she values is the "mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity," then it is possible to trace its lineaments or at least its potential in the Grandmother, Hulga, Parker, Tanner, Mrs. Cope, or even Julian and his mother; but their deliverance is by no means certain. In the final analysis, then, it is the reader who "apprehend[s] the form" that can experience the comedic liberation from illusion. As Frye puts it, "illusion is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best understood as its negative: whatever reality is, it's not that" (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism 169-170).
O'Connor's revelations overturn the worlds of her characters without giving definitive formulation to what is revealed. This comedic way of negation suits O'Connor's anagogical design. A foundational claim of apophatic theology is that anything one says about God must also be seen as not absolute. O'Connor's emphasis on "seeing the form" points to the importance of seeing "the unspeakable or ineffable relationships that constitute the form, the interstices" (Noyalis 1). Characters such as Parker's wife need to live within clear, delineated certainty, but they are, in fact, "wineskins that cannot receive the new, non-delineated, ambiguous awareness of the mystery found only among things, never apart from things" (Noyalis 2). O'Connor's patterns negate the world's certainties--science, knowledge, hard work, cleanliness, respectability, even formulations of doctrine--("whatever reality is, it's not that"). Her comedic forms may deliver her characters, but can deliver her readers to apprehend her own brand of "freedom"--the encounter with mystery.
FOR better or worse, the generic classification of comedy has traditionally hinged on the ending of the work. Dante entitled his opus magnus a comedy because it began in hell and ended in paradise. Byron stated baldly that tragedies end in death: comedies in marriage. One need not have read much of Flannery O'Connor to realize that her endings do not fit the comedic paradigm. She described the reaction to her reading of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The listeners roared with laughter for the first half, and sat in stunned silence for the second half. The trajectory of her" plots consistently departs from the comedic contract with the audience, the serene expectation of a happy ending. O'Connor appropriates the comedic paradigm as we have seen, in developing plot, character, and mode in her stories. She distances the action comedically, barring emotion and engaging the intellect. But her typical outcome leaves Julian's mother dead on the sidewalk, Hulga without a leg to stand on, Mrs. Cope watching fire consume her farm, Parker weeping, Bevel drowned, Mary Fortune and her grandfather dead, and Mrs. May gored by a bull.
O'Connor's endings move from the horizontal axis to a vertical one, catapulting the action into a different sphere. She opens a door to another dimension, but bars entry to the reader. Her endings occur before we can see the effects of grace, before we can see whether the characters have, in fact, achieved the self-knowledge and undergone the reversal they have been offered. They are unmasked, deflated, and reduced to their rockbottom humanity, but then led offstage--or rather, left dead on stage. O'Connor's laughter is, in the final analysis, transitional. (5) It drops away at the end. The transparent mode of comedy shifts to dense symbolism, even ambiguity. The concluding tableaus are stunning and disorienting to readers expecting the restored harmony and festive reconciliation of comedy. The horizontal interplay of alazon and eiron is subsumed by an overarching irony. O'Connor is not interested in getting her characters to change their ways, a moral (or "tropological") message she scorned to indulge. Her interest is in their encounter with grace, or the offer of participation in the divine life, something quite different from mere good behavior. O'Connor therefore frustrates the facile comedic resolution and demands instead the hard work of anagogical interpretation.
What we see in O'Connor's design, then, is an appropriation of classic comedic devices and structures that she employs in a truncated plot design. She reveals the ridiculous element of her characters, unmasks their pretensions, and shatters their facades. But then, instead of reforming or reconciling her comic characters in the obligatory happy ending, she shoves them into a stark encounter with the ultimate in the form of death or defeat. This shift in mode suggests an encounter with mystery, the appropriate response to which is silence. The locus of resolution is more difficult to determine than in conventional comedy. O'Connor's is thus a hybrid form, arousing, like absurd theater, contradictory responses in an audience trained to respond to a recognizable comedic tradition (Leyburn 644). Her ironic endings have the flavor of the ludicrous about them, but they open into mystery. Resolution appears to be offstage, found on the level of anagogical interpretation.
Traditional comedy is marked by circularity. By connecting the mythos of spring with the genre of comedy, Frye emphasizes the cyclic structure of comedic action. The comedic plot and its resolution replicate the seasonal circularity of the death of the old god/order succeeded by the birth of the new order/resurrection in new life and fertility. The resolution brings lovers together, and restores the harmony of the comnmnity. Both the perennial cycle of nature and comedic endings are therefore comfortably predictable. O'Connor's plots, however, are linear, not cyclic. Their conclusions, rather than coming full circle to restored harmony, remain open-ended. Her characters are free to say "no" with their last breath.
Although O'Connor begins her comedic stories with the rational apprehension of the irrational (the distinguishing mode of the comic genre), she moves at last to the suprarational--to the mystery that transcends reason. And that is where she leaves her readers--with a concrete tableau that carries an excess of signification. Traditional comedic endings distribute justice and arrive at festive, if improbable, reconciliations based on the speedy reversal of blocking characters. But O'Connor leaves the reader to struggle for "the point"--the extensions of meaning--the hard way, by staring very hard at the concrete image until it yields its anagogical secret.
1) For a useful collection of essays by Peter Berger, Nathan Scott, Barry Ulanov, Reinhold Niebuhr and others on the relationship between Christianity and the comic tradition, see Conrad Hyers. See also William Lynch, Christ and Apollo, and Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.
2) A number of critics have addressed formal elements in O'Connor's comedy. Sura Rath outlines the comic polarities in Wise Blood, basing his analysis on the interplay among the paired stereotypes identified by Aristotle. Kathleen Feeley gives an overview of O'Connor's comedic strategies, and Clinton Trowbridge addresses imagery.
3) See Trowbridge on O'Connor's technique of literalizing metaphors.
4) "The modes of good," O'Connor wrote in "A Memoir of Mary Ann," "have to be satisfied with a clich6 or a smoothing-down that will soften their real look" (Mystery and Manners 226).
5) See Averintsev for a discussion of the transitional nature of laughter in the theory of Bakhtin.
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